The Epistolary Character

There is something curious about the art of letter writing. A letter is not quite a tall tale, as its contents are as real as ink can ever get, yet neither is it an essay, for it tells its own sort of story, and not merely another’s. A letter is neither a missive though one might take it for that by the definition in the thesaurus. A missive seeks only to relay a message, which, though a letter does as well, it does so incidental to its prime purpose (or as I see it – feel free to disagree, and I’ll put on my best hat and tie to answer the argument.)

A letter is an accidental autobiography. It is not quite a testimony as one might give in court, and it certainly isn’t a memoir (I’ve long thought that word rank with self-absorption), yet the story is very much your own – but also someone else’s. In the case of the now ubiquitous and somewhat oxymoronic ‘open-letter’ that can be the story of a great many individuals. I stretch my definition here, as I have always believed a letter in its truest nature is always a private affair, meaningful only to those whom it concerns.

A letter is the story not only of its author, but also of its recipient. In how someone conducts themselves in a letter, you see not only the paths of their logic and feelings, but also of their perceptions of their partner. In the lines of a letter you can see a cerebral and calculating mind at once madly in love with the subject of his affections, or a passionate spirit cooled by heartbreak and loneliness, or the supreme disconnection of one so consumed with the craft of his message that he has left out its heart, and quite accidentally put something else in its place.

The heart of a letter is a hard thing to nail down, much like a certain physicist’s cat – yet when it is found, the soul of a thoughtfully written letter is so much more evocative and descriptive of a relationship than any number of adjectives and prose. And while you might put this to use in your own letters (though in this digital age we are rarely given to such extravagances as personalized, emotive communication), my concern with this subject is in fiction.

You have your brilliant band of misfits for your novel, whether it be an adventure through the forests of Moravia or a harrowing journey to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, or just an exceptionally interesting walk to the Circle-K (though this article is written with the longer form and epic scale in mind, you may have opportunity to apply it to the short and mundane as well). You have written out their relationships, you know how the little rascals should behave towards one another, think of one another, treat one another – and yet something doesn’t click. You struggle, as I have, to make the changes in their relationship seem realistic. You find it difficult to engineer the situations which lead to them demonstrating their feelings so that you don’t have to narrate them.

Write a letter between them. Take on the eyes and pen of one of your characters, and compose their thoughts to the other. There are few means more intimate of seeing your story’s world through your character’s eyes – and seeing your other characters. It is as close one can step into a relationship without being in one (or stalking them in the night, which I do not advise.) Even without integrating it into your finished work, this is a useful exercise for character development, particularly when it would seem odd to conduct an interview – while it may be quite easy to interview your average young hero or heroine, brimming with optimism and good-will, it’s quite the challenge to interview a power-hungry, kinslaying baroness without seeing her personality entirely out of its natural environment.

The mechanism of the letter, delivered and undelivered, can be a powerful way to speak your character’s thoughts aloud – but itself can be taken for just another form of thought-narration, if presented merely as the character is writing them. Recall that letters are not the story of the individual alone, but of the relationship between individuals. If you intend to use the epistle within your story, it must be presented through the eyes of its recipient (intended or not! A third party reading a letter meant for another is an ancient plot device as old as intrigue.) If you present a letter as seen by its writer, it is no different than a diary entry – which can be precisely what you intend. Diaries, although not covered here, can fill a similar function when presented as read by another character in the story – advancing and changing a relationship through the revelation of intimate secrets. Interviews can again do the same, though the value there is less in what is said and more in what is not said. Both worthy subjects for a further treatise.

To summarize, the letter is an ancient form, and not merely one reserved for the practical conveyance of information. The Apostles great letters contain not only the explicit wisdom of the Holy Spirit speaking through them, nor merely a historical record of the churches then, but a priceless look at how the leaders of the early church felt towards and cared for the congregations under their care, and how those congregations responded. The letters of leaders both great and terrible speak volumes to their official and their personal relations – Hitler the Fuhrer is very different from Hitler the Starving Artist. In just the same way, your characters will conduct themselves very differently in public and in private, in the spoken word and in the written word, and in that difference you can capture the essence of how that individual views himself and everyone else.

Advertisements

Letters to my Son: Letter I

Dear Son,

Son, I’m writing this to you because I love you. I don’t know you yet, but I hope that when we meet, I will be a man you can happily call Dad.

But until we meet, there’s a lot that I have to do. I’m not your father yet. I’m a rotten man, a hypocrite, a rebel and a stubborn goat who will hear the truth preached to him all the day long and still not heed the words of wisdom. I’m unworthy in every way to be your father, and it frightens me that I might never become that man.

Or it would, if I did not have a better Father of my own. He’s not the man whose funny crooked teeth or thick hair I inherited, but He has been as much of and far more of a father than the one who conceived me.

To point, I want to be a good father to you. My father provided for me, but there’s quite a few lessons and points of guidance which he never gave to me, but which God graciously provided to me by His providence when I needed it, and even now He continues to lead me for His namesake – and I fully expect that when I see you, He will still be guiding us, me and you both. He is your Father too, and He knows you better than I ever will, for He made you with His hands, and breathed life into you in your mother’s womb.

I’m a writer, my son. That means that when God gives me good thoughts and words, I write them down. Right now, in my youth, it doesn’t seem like there’s much else that I’m good for, so it’s what I do whenever I’m not earning my wages. And that is one of the tough truths that we have to wrestle with under God. There are things we want to do, things we would want to spend all our days doing nothing but, and yet we cannot. Writing is not profitable. It is risky even to try to make a subsistence living as a writer, because unlike a standard 9 to 5 job, there’s no benefits package and no overtime pay. You live off of royalties, advances, and ad-revenue, depending on what you write. You have to practice for years just to get into the craft, and then once you’re in, you can never stop practicing.

And right now son, I’m afraid. I’m ashamed. I’m not brave enough to risk it all to get my dream career. I’m afraid of shaming myself in the eyes of those who love me by forsaking conventional labors for my writing. I’m afraid that I am just indulging laziness by wishing for this. I’m afraid that I would be acting in pride to gratify the desires of my flesh, and forsaking the God who has delivered me from my sins many and myriad. I’m ashamed already at the ungodly desires of my heart, the unrighteous intentions of my flesh, of my weakness in entertaining these traitorous thoughts.

Son, there will be a great many people in your life who will tell you to ‘pursue your dreams.’ They will tell you life is an open book, that the possibilities are limitless, that the world is your oyster.

They are lying to you. The world is not an oyster, it is a barren field. There is much possibility in it, but to extract from the bitter soil your dreams will require of you undying toil, remarkable luck, and toil again until your very bones wear out. To fulfill all your earthly desires by your own hands will consume you like a flame until you come to the end of your road and wonder what you gave up your life for.

Do not desire the things of this world. Even good and glorious things like fame, like doing something you love for a living, these things should not be your heart’s desire. Your desire must be in the Lord, or you will die unsatisfied. I know, because I chased these things and even baser desires for too long in my life, ignoring the appeals God made so gently upon my heart.

Please, my Son – do not be like me. I am not proud of my writing. I am good at it, and I know I was unarguably better at it than many of my peers in school. And there is some joy when I write well, a finely put together sentence, a good day which brought forth more words than usual. And if you become a writer like me, my son, by no means do I discourage you.

But if you are a writer, I want you to do one of two things. If you want to write because you want your name on book covers, because you enjoy it, because you’re good at it – don’t quit your day job. Secure your living first, and indulge your passion when the sun sets. Please, think hard before you give your life to art.

Did I say two things?

My son, no matter how much I want to give you that dream, of being able to do nothing but write for a living – I can’t offer it to you now. I don’t have that dream. I wonder if I even have the self-discipline to manage it if I wasn’t so hemmed in by shame.

God loves you. And if God wills it, it will happen. But when you pray to our Father, you cannot have doubt. You must know what you want, want it truly, want it for the right reasons (read: the glory of God’s Kingdom, the salvation of the unredeemed, and the deliverance of His people), and be faithful that God can do all things.

The Lord knows no doubt. He knows no fear, none of the vacillation that you see in this letter. He is not afraid of being shamed, He is not afraid for His reputation or his 401K or His marriage prospects. He is our bold and fearless King, who humbles all the wicked and proud of this world and heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and shelters the weary. It is our good and gracious God who liberated me from the lusts which consumed my whole being, our kind and merciful God who spared my grandparents from rapacious invaders and conveyed them safely to America, our holy and generous God who gave to me the woman who will be your mother, blessing me a million times in excess of that which I deserve – including by giving me you to rear and teach.

All the gifts you will enjoy, from your food, to your shelter, to your parents (hi there) to the nature present as it may be, to every single talent and ability of your body and mind – all these come from God, and they are purposed for His glory – that all should hear His Word, call upon His name, and be rescued from their evil. As our God smites the wicked so He also redeems them, saving awful sinners like me, who did only evil in His sight with no regard for good.

Our God – and I hope your God – is a delightful savior, who makes my heart sing with joy as I write this very line. For I know that a day will come when these worries will trouble me no more, when I will finally find rest when all I have known is toil. I love my God because He is good, because He first loved me when I was unlovable, and never expected a single thing in return but that I would believe in Him and look to Him as Father. And even these things are gifts from Him, to be given back to Him with loving shouts of praise.

I love you, son. I will write to you again soon. Please take to heart all that I have said, and treasure the wisdom I struggle to pass on to you.

May the peace of God be with you, offspring of mine.

Sincerely,

Dad.